Faith isn’t always certainty. Actually, if you think about it, faith inherently implies a degree of uncertainty. It implies room for discovery and reflection, margin for debate and growth. Otherwise, it would be called certainty, not faith.
Now this isn’t to say faith can’t be fact or trusted. It isn’t to say one can’t be confident in their faith-based worldview. (Really, everyone’s worldview is faith-based, religious or not, whether they admit it or not, because no worldview has complete certainty.) It’s just to say that faith and certainty aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Yet, far too often, the faithful crusade that any degree of uncertainty is un-faith. Many venemously argue: A person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt. But this causes so many problems on so many levels.
1. This is why many people choose not to follow Jesus.
Countless times, I’ve sat with non-Christians to discuss their doubts. And usually, my natural inclination is to smile, listen, and nod with empathy and understanding, only to respond with a full-scale, code-red, fire-everything, barrage of answers. Good answers. Air-tight answers. Undeniable answers. In-your-face, whatcha-gunna-do, repent-or-descent, turn-or-burn, defensive answers.
Because for just about all the thoughtful doubts people have, we have thoughtful responses. This may surprise you, but there are actually smart Christians with real-life functional brains they refused to check at the door when they joined church. And more than once, I’ve used their research in these conversations.
But strangely, it’s rare that my answers satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I give answers often to get blank stares and more questions. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that even though someone may have a question, an answer usually isn’t enough. Said different, people may have questions, but they don’t actually need answers.
You know what Christians really like? When someone is dealing with a real-life faith question or struggle, we like to give them a book. “Oh I got a book for you!” Or we send them a YouTube link, or a lecture, or a sermon, right? So our friend at work says, “Look my issue is ______! And I just can’t reconcile it.” And what do we do, we say, “Well, guess what. Good news! I’ve got the answer. Read this three times a day for two weeks and call me in the morning.”
But look, I’ve found, more often than not, people aren’t buying. And that’s because they don’t actually need an answer, even if they think they do. They need something far more profound. When are we going to realize that answers don’t make Christians, Jesus does.
People usually don’t become Christians by finding answers to all their BIG questions. They do so by first encountering Someone who dwarfs those questions. They do so by bringing many of those tough questions and doubts that seem so large into a relationship with Someone far larger, and then watching them shrink. Some disappear immediately. Some slowly. Some linger. But all of them are dwarfed daily next to King Jesus.
Bottom line, when we rigidly equate faith with blind certainty, we create an inflexible, all-or-nothing way of relating to God. And that’s imposing, unrealistic, and simply not how God operates. Sure there are some non-negotiables to following Jesus, but if explorers feel as if all the “T’s” must be crossed and all the “i’s” dotted before they are allowed to try, they won’t.
Before I move to the next point, a quick word to those who are wired a skeptic (like me): Sometimes what we call doubt or uncertainty isn’t actually doubt or uncertainty at all, it’s resistance. Be honest. Sometimes the reason we try so hard to deny faith or twist truth is because we just don’t want to be responsible for it. We may act like our doubts are cerebral at the core, but often it’s not a question of intellect, it’s a question of submission. “Do I want to submit to what I see here? Because if I do, I’ll have no choice but to change in radical and, perhaps, uncomfortable ways?”
This very reason is why I think it’s extremely important for all doubters to doubt their doubts and ask, “Why am I doubting? Am I doubting because I don’t think this is true? Or am I doubting because this conflicts with what I want to be true?”
2. This is why many Christians feel guilty and insecure.
Most of us aren’t conscious of it, and if you are, you won’t admit it, but often our relationships with God look more like luck than faith.
God is like a four-leaf clover or cross-shaped rabbit’s foot, we rub on when we find something we need or want. You’ve seen this, probably even used it – pray this prayer, or touch your cross, or rub your beads, or repeat after me, or memorize this verse, and say it like this, or purchase this prayer cloth for $9.99, and if you do, I promise God will make amazing happen for you.
Now real quick, let me just clarify for you here. That’s not Christianity. That’s called luck. And if you want to trade your faith for luck, that’s fine, just make sure you follow the two rules of luck:
i. First, understand that all good luck works… sometimes. It’s true! Cross your fingers, splash holy water on your chest, carry your Bible, pray the prayer, then hop on one foot and scream “Holy Spirit power!” and abracadabra! Sometimes you’ll get lucky!
ii. And second, understand that on those frequent occasions that your luck isn’t so lucky, it isn’t the luck’s fault, it’s yours, because you didn’t have enough faith. When your luck fails, don’t blame the luck, blame your faith, oh ye of little faith! And maybe next time, if you believe more and doubt less, lady luck will give you a sloppy wet, ehhhh, unforeseen kiss square on the lips.
Again, may I have your attention please, that’s not faith, that’s luck. And as long as you believe in luck, you’ll continue to feel an immense amount of guilt and nagging insecurity with your faith.
3. This is why some Christians check their brains at the door.
When faith is postured as complete certainty, Christians stop thinking. They avoid studying and discussing tough topics. They nurture anti-intellectualism and look disdainfully upon academia. And they become self-righteous and narrow-minded. They raise their voices in disgust and condemnation at anything that sniffs of challenge, and end up pushing out of faith one of the most legitimate means of worship, the continuous pursuit and intimate discovery of God.
Being stubborn, irrational, and hard-headed is not a virtue. Humility is a virtue. And the possibility of growth requires humility. You will never go through any period of intellectual or spiritual growth without first doubting where you stand in the present to move toward a more certain and faithful future.
So confession time… I grew up in a preacher’s home, a smart preacher’s home… with an even smarter preacher’s wife (don’t tell my dad). I received an undergraduate degree in theology, a MDiv in biblical studies, and have done ministry for the better part of six years now. And all the while my faith has been accompanied by a degree of uncertainty. And I’m okay with that.
God created us to seek him, not certainty. Because only God, not certainty, can provide us with the desire of our hearts. When we allow certainty to sit upon the throne of our hearts, we worship certainty, not God. And that’s idolatry.
The true proof of biblical faith has never been about achieving complete certainty, it’s been about maintaining faith in the midst of uncertainty. And the beautiful irony of such faith is, as you persevere, certainty grows all the more.
Certainty is not bad, but neither is uncertainty. Both are good things. But like all good things, they become destructive when they’re made ultimate things. And for many, certainty has become an ultimate thing. So live in the beautiful tension between the two. And never be afraid to embrace your uncertainty and embark upon the journey that is knowing God.
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* An instant classic with my mentor Dr. Tom Thatcher in which he expounds mad-wisdom, and I respond by finding a way to say “At the end of the day…” at least nine times within five minutes of dialogue.